Warden ousted as FBI again searches California federal women’s prison plagued by sexual abuse

FILE - The Federal Correctional Institution stands in Dublin, Calif., on Dec. 5, 2022. Federal investigators on Monday, March 11, 2024, are again searching the troubled women's prison, seizing computers and documents in an apparent escalation of a yearslong sexual abuse investigation that led to previous charges against a former warden and other employees. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu, File)

FILE – The Federal Correctional Institution stands in Dublin, Calif., on Dec. 5, 2022. Federal investigators on Monday, March 11, 2024, are again searching the troubled women’s prison, seizing computers and documents in an apparent escalation of a yearslong sexual abuse investigation that led to previous charges against a former warden and other employees. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu, File)

The warden of a troubled federal women’s prison in California has been ousted months into his tenure as FBI agents on Monday hauled boxes of evidence from the facility in an apparent escalation of a yearslong investigation that put a former warden and other employees behind bars for sexually abusing inmates.

Government lawyers said in court papers Monday that Art Dulgov was removed as warden of FCI Dublin in the wake of allegations that his staff had retaliated against an inmate who testified in January in a lawsuit against the prison. The inmate was transferred to a different prison despite the judge’s order not to transfer any witnesses without court approval, filings in the case show.

The federal Bureau of Prisons confirmed the leadership shakeup, saying in a statement that “recent developments have necessitated new executive employees be installed” at the low-security Bay Area facility. The agency did not specify what the developments were and declined to comment on the FBI search.

Deputy Regional Director N.T. McKinney will replace Dulgov on an interim basis effective immediately, Bureau of Prisons spokesperson Randilee Giamusso said. McKinney is at least the fourth person to be put in charge of FCI Dublin since former warden Ray Garcia was placed on administrative leave after the FBI raided his office and vehicle in July 2021.

An associate warden and prison captain working under Dulgov were also removed from their positions, along with an executive assistant who oversaw the prison’s minimum-security satellite camp, government lawyers said.

A message seeking comment was left with Dulgov.

More than a dozen FBI agents searched FCI Dublin on Monday, seizing computers, documents and other evidence and seeking to interview employees, a person familiar with the matter told the Associated Press. The person was not authorized to speak publicly and did so on the condition of anonymity.

FBI spokesperson Cameron Polan confirmed that agents were there conducting “court-authorized law enforcement activity,” but declined to give details.

Monday’s search came days after a new wave of civil lawsuits alleging abuse at FCI Dublin and as a federal judge weighs appointing a special master to oversee the prison’s operations. The prison, about 21 miles (34 kilometers) east of Oakland, has been known as the “rape club” because of years of rampant staff-on-inmate sexual abuse.

An AP investigation in 2021 found a culture of abuse and cover-ups that had persisted for years at the prison, which currently has more than 650 inmates. That reporting led to increased scrutiny from Congress and pledges from the Bureau of Prisons that it would fix problems and change the culture at the prison.

Last August, eight FCI Dublin inmates sued the Bureau of Prisons, alleging the agency had failed to root out sexual abuse. Amaris Montes, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, said inmates continued to face retaliation for reporting abuse, including being put in solitary confinement and having belongings confiscated.

Since 2021, at least eight FCI Dublin employees have been charged with sexually abusing inmates. Five have pleaded guilty. Two were convicted at trial. Another case is pending.

All sexual activity between a prison worker and an inmate is illegal. Correctional employees enjoy substantial power over inmates, controlling every aspect of their lives from mealtime to lights out, and there is no scenario in which an inmate can give consent.

The sexual abuse scandal has been one of many troubles plaguing the federal Bureau of Prisons, which is also beset by rampant staffing shortages, suicides and security breaches.

Dulgov was put in charge of FCI Dublin after the former warden, Thahesha Jusino, retired late last year. Jusino had vowed to rebuild broken trust when she took over in March 2022. Before that, then-deputy regional director T. Ray Hinkle was interim warden. He had pledged to staff that he would help Dublin “regain its reputation,” but his tenure was marred by allegations that he targeted staff whistleblowers and clashed with a visiting congresswoman.

Dulgov’s personal website lists several accolades for his corrections work, including the Bureau of Prisons’ Golden Apple Award and an award from California federal prosecutors in 2019 for helping implement the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy. He has also been a federal prison warden in Arizona.

The website also notes that Dulgov, who taught middle school before entering the corrections industry, has served as an Equal Employment Opportunity counselor and has regular trained his staff in equal employment policies and procedures, civil rights and federal regulations.

McKinney, FCI Dublin’s new interim warden, “has been charged with developing a plan for the future of the facility,” Giamusso said. She said the change was made “consistent with unprecedented and ongoing actions” by Bureau of Prisons’ leadership “to create a positive change in the culture at FCI Dublin.”

Garcia was convicted in 2022 of molesting inmates and forcing them to pose naked in their cells. Prosecutors said he tried to keep his victims quiet with promises that he’d help them get early release and told one victim he was close friends with a prison official responsible for investigating staff misconduct and couldn’t be fired.

The FBI arrested Garcia in September 2021, months after questioning him at the prison and searching his office and vehicle. He is serving a six-year prison sentence.

Testifying on his own behalf, Garcia conceded that he had made mistakes but claimed that some of his alleged wrongdoing — like taking pictures of naked inmates — was done as part of his official duties to document violations of prison policy.

Prosecutors countered by calling a prison lieutenant who said he’s never seen a case where it was appropriate for an employee to take photos of a nude inmate.

Among the other employees accused of sexual abuse were former chaplain James Theodore Highhouse, who was sentenced to seven years in prison after pleading guilty to abusing an inmate in his chapel office and lying to authorities, and ex-safety administrator John Russell Bellhouse, who was convicted last June of sexually abusing two inmates.

Prosecutors said Bellhouse “began to express an interest in a particular female inmate and started calling the inmate his ‘girlfriend’” in 2020. They said he inappropriately touched the woman and that she performed oral sex on Bellhouse twice in the prison’s safety office. He was sentenced to more than five years in prison.

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